Can Anxiety Be Beneficial? An Psychotherapist Dr. Dana Dorfman Weighs In
We sat down with New York City-based psychotherapist about anxiety in parents and adolescents, value-aligned decisions and the benefits of anxiety.
Why are parents experiencing anxiety so much more than previous generations?
There are many explanations and speculations as to why anxiety is so much more prevalent now. And like all social phenomena, it is multidetermined; we cannot attribute it to one or two sole causes. This generation of parents and their kids are experiencing endless opportunities for anxiety to percolate! Anxiety is a byproduct of uncertainty and is our in-born mechanism to anticipate and alert us to physical and emotional threats. Our physiological wiring ensures that we take steps to prepare and protect ourselves from harm. Needless to say, we are inundated with explicit and implicit messages of potential threats: a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, accelerating technology, social media, climate change, political and social unrest, school shootings, increased global competition, and unavoidable access to information (often negative and anxiety-producing). Additionally, anxiety is “contagious;” we sense, perceive and mirror one another’s emotional states.
What does anxiety look like in adolescents?
Anxiety can show up in many unexpected or less obvious manifestations, particularly in teenagers. It is not always that stereotypical shaking-in-your-boots that we imagine. Certainly, there are the tell-tale, commonly recognized symptoms of anxiety: changes in sleeping/eating or physiological responses like sweating, pacing, and accelerated speech. However, it can also manifest in irritability, compulsive behaviors, social withdrawal, or more. Teens who drink alcohol or use recreational drugs are often trying to manage anxiety. People manifest anxiety differently, so it is not always recognizable at first glance. Additionally, it can coexist with many other emotional and psychological states, from excitement to depression.
What are the benefits of anxiety?
Anxiety’s purpose is for self-protection. Thus, it can be valuable in preventing us from further physical or emotional distress. Due to its physiological nature, it can offer us many physiological benefits in certain situations. For example, anxiety increases our adrenaline, gives us physical strength and mobility, and can enhance our focus. This is quite beneficial at the starting block of a competitive race or when preparing for a final exam.
Unfortunately, however, this mechanism cannot always regulate its proportionality. Due to this imprecision, when in excess, it can prevent or hinder us from functioning optimally.
What’s an example of a value-aligned decision?
Values-aligned decisions are when we use our values–our core and fundamental principles by which we live–as a North Star to guide and inform our decisions and actions. When we explicitly define and clarify what is most important to us, we can feel more grounded, confident, and intentional in how we approach our children.
As parents, we are faced with moment-to-moment “judgment calls,” from the macro (what school environment do we want for our children? Will we raise them with a specific religion?) to the micro (Do I allow them to quit an instrument or sport? Is it okay if they stay up past their bedtime tonight?). Because parenting is inherently anxiety-producing, anxiety can often influence or drive our decisions. And, unfortunately, anxiety often makes us lose sight of our values.
The more aware that we are of both our values and our anxieties, the better equipped we are to make decisions that align with our values. For example, if “commitment to family” is one of your core values, you might have your child forgo a soccer game to attend a family wedding; or if independence is one of your core values, you might allow your preteen to take the subway themselves, even if it makes you anxious.
How can parents improve their decision-making? How do we align our behaviors with our values?
When parents are faced with a parenting dilemma or decision, they can take several steps.
- First, identify their 3-4 core values – not what they think they “should” value, but what is truly most important to them in their core.
- Identify and “indulge” their anxieties. What am I worried about? What is the worst thing that could happen? What is likely to happen? Writing out these responses or talking them out with a trusted partner/friend can help you sift through and disentangle anxieties from values.
- Challenge the worries: Identify concrete evidence to support or disprove your anxieties.
- After doing so, try to incorporate your values into the decision.
If the parent from the above example were to engage in this exercise, they would convey their intentions clearly to the preteen and engage in a solution: “It’s important to me that you learn how and feel comfortable navigating the city on your own to develop independence; let’s figure out a way for you to do so.”
Also, I’ve created a Parent Decision Making Worksheet, listed on my website and in the book’s appendix, to guide parents through this process.